I’m still getting delayed gratification from my recent decadent literature jag – some of the Dedalus books I ordered were out of stock and they’ve been slowly trickling in. One such is Gustav Meyrink’s The Green Face (translated by Mike Mitchell). (As I write that “It’s Not Easy Being Green” by Van Morrison starts on my CD player, which is a little eerie as the novel is full of occult coincidences and synchronicities, and it too could be entitled “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”)
The book is set in post World War One Amsterdam, a ancient city swollen by the dispossessed and dissatisfied of Europe, creating a multi-national melange of refugees, thrill seekers, messianic pretenders, confidence men and simple fruitcakes. There’s the exuberant, almost hysterical energy we associate with the twenties in America, but mixed with an apocalyptic disillusionment – the “war to end all wars” has destroyed a lot of old things and killed a lot of young people, but it hasn’t provided any credible reason for the carnage or alternative to the ruins.
The first few chapters are exceptional – Fortunatus Hauberrisser, a bored, well to do foreigner wanders aimlessly into a strange shop called Childer Green’s Hall of Riddles, chock full of magic tricks, pornography and curios, not to mention a strange cast of characters including Mister Usibepu, the Zulu medicine man, “Professor” Arpad Zitter from Bratislava, Professor of Pneumatism, and Childer Green himself, an ancient Jew with a oddly green face and a strip of cloth obscuring his forehead. Hauberrisser buys a papier-mache skull and beats a baffled retreat, little knowing that his experiences at Childer Green’s are to color his whole life.
He soon discovers that his friends have also had encounters and visions of an elusive green faced man, and after experiences that take him through a dizzying mixture of idealism and corruption in the cabarets and tenements of Amsterdam, he makes his way back to the shop only to find that noone there has heard of Childer Green and that the sign in front says Arpad Zitter’s Hall of Riddles.
Even after Hauberrisser meets his bewitching soul mate Eva and encounters a visionary religious group, the book maintains a winning balance between satire and fantasy, but unfortunately after a shocking series of events, the pace suddenly slackens and the reader is subjected to a string of lightly dramatized philosophical/occult pronouncements which Meyrink seems to want us to take as (literally) gospel. At the end the book redeems itself by switching gears yet again to present a chilling vision of apocalypse, ruin and transcendence.
I guess it’s wrong to criticize a work of art for not being what you wanted it to be, but the first half of The Green Face is so strong and the undigested tracts in the middle (one of which I found printed as esoteric wisdom on a Yoga site on the net) are so lame that I couldn’t help being disappointed to find what could have been a great novel becoming merely a good one. The visionary ending atones somewhat for that let down, and on the whole it’s certainly worth reading. Here’s two extracts, one in the political mode and one in the successfully visionary:
Specters, monstrous yet without form and only discernible through the devastation they wrought, had been called up be faceless and power-hungry bureaucrats in their secret seances and had devoured millions of innocent victims before returning to the sleep from which they had been roused. But there was another phantom, still more horrible, that had long since caught the foul stench of a decaying civilization in its gaping nostrils and now raised its snake wreathed countenance from the abyss where it had lain, to mock humanity with the realization that the juggernaut they had driven for the past four years in the belief it would clear the world for a new generation of free men was a treadmill in which they were trapped for all time.
He clearly recognized the plain, bare walls if his room, and yet at the same time they were the walls of a temple decorated with a fresco of Egyptian deities. He was standing in the middle and both were reality: he saw the wooden floorboards and at the same time they were the stone flagstones of the temple, two worlds that interpenetrated before his very eyes, fused together and yet separate. It was as if he were awake and dreaming in one and the same moment. He touched the whitewashed wall with his hand, could feel its rough surface and yet at the same time knew without mistake that his fingers were stroking a tall, gold statue, which he believed he recognized as the Goddess Isis sitting on a throne.